The NBA suspended Hawks center Zaza Pachulia and Magic guard Jason Richardson for Game 4 of the first-round Eastern Conference playoffs series Sunday at Philips Arena.
Pachulia and Richardson were ejected in the fourth quarter of Atlanta’s 88-84 Game 3 victory at Philips Arena.
The incident started after Pachulia fouled Magic center Dwight Howard and Howard followed through with an elbow to Pachulia’s head. Pachulia screamed in anger as Richardson came over to confront him.
Pachulia headbutted Richardson twice as they stood face-to-face; Richardson retaliated by smacking Pachulia in the face. The league said the players were suspended for those actions.
“I got elbowed after the foul,” Pachulia said today before the suspensions were announced. “I was just trying to show [officials] that I got elbowed. That wasn’t right. Suddenly Jason Richardson came behind me. I don’t know what he thought. He came behind me and started talking and that’s when everything started.”
Pachulia said the headbutts were not intentional.
“I was talking to him,” he said. “Maybe first one or two [were] like manner of talking but third one was like big one. That’s a tough situation: nerves, tension high, people screaming and you are just losing yourself.
“Maybe you have got to be more careful but it is a very tough situation. Very few people can control themselves in that situation, especially when you guys know my character. It was tough.”
Pachulia’s suspension severely damages Atlanta’s efforts to defend Howard. Of the five players who have checked Howard this season, only Pachulia and starting center Jason Collins have managed to hold their ground against Howard’s powerful post moves.
Collins has been most effective against Howard but he’s likely to be slowed after suffering a bruised tailbone while drawing a charging foul on Howard in Game 3. Collins did not participate in Atlanta’s light practice on Saturday but said he would play in Game 4.
Atlanta’s other options to defend include forward Josh Powell and centers Etan Thomas and Hilton Armstrong. Coach Larry Drew has avoided assigning Al Horford to guard Howard because he wants to avoid foul trouble for Horford.
“We still have bodies,” Drew said before the suspensions were announced. “Will the bodies still be effective, that’s the question.”
Pachulia played 19 minutes in Game 2, including 15 relatively effective minutes guarding Howard in the second half. Pachulia also harassed Howard while playing 26 minutes in Game 3 as Collins was limited to 17 minutes in part because of the back injury.
During Atlanta’s 103-93 victory Game 1, Collins was limited to 17 minutes because of foul trouble. Pachulia played nine minutes, Powell eight and Thomas seven.
“From yesterday’s game you might think, ‘They need Zaza for Dwight,’” Pachulia said today. “But we have great players, professionals and I expect them to step up if I am out.”
Richardson’s suspension creates a dilemma for the Magic. He’s been the primary defender against Hawks shooting guard Joe Johnson, whose size has created match up problems for the Magic.
J.J. Redick is likely to replace Richardson in the starting lineup. He missed the final 17 games of the regular season with an abdominal injury and coach Stan Van Gundy said before Game 3 that Redick still is affected by the injury.
The other shooting guard options for Orlando include Gilbert Arenas and Quentin Richardson. Arenas didn’t play in Game 3 and Richardson has logged 35 minutes in the series.
Pachulia has given the Hawks a jolt with his energy and toughness but he’s also earned a reputation among opponents for being a physical nuisance.
Earlier this month Houston guard Kyle Lowry needed six stitches to close a cut on his lip after a collision with Pachulia that he called “a dirty play by him.” A trainer held back Lowry as he tried to go after Pachulia.
This is the second time Pachulia has headbutted an opponent during a playoff game. In 2008 he tangled with Boston forward Kevin Garnett.
“I’m not trying to be dirty,” Pachulia said. “I am out there to play basketball, not fight. But if it comes to that situation one thing know is I am never going to back down from anybody.
“It’s not something I am trying to fight or show you something or prove something. If I feel disrespected like that, I am [reacting]. That’s what happened. It might be bad thing but everybody has own personality and that’s my personality.”